UK passes ‘human rights exam’, but with room to improve

6 June 2012 by

Last week the UN Human Rights Commissioner published the draft report of the second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UK’s human rights record (draft report here,  webcast of the UPR session here). The UPR involves delegations from UN member states asking questions and make recommendations to the UK government on the protection of human rights, which the government will consider before providing its response. The report is extremely wide-ranging, perhaps to its detriment, though many valuable and interesting insights are provided.

The UPR process was established in 2006. It involves a review of all 192 UN member states once every four years. As readers of this blog will know, the protection of human rights has a troubled recent history in the UK, with newspaper campaigns against “the hated Human Rights Act” providing the background to government pronouncements on human rights that veer from the sensible to the ridiculous. In this context, the UPR provides a valuable attempt at a serious assessment of human rights in this country.

Wide-ranging report

There is a lot in the report. There were 60 statements made by delegations from member states and 132 recommendations for future improvement. The statements range from congratulations for implementing previous recommendations to questions on government policy in certain areas of concern. For example, numerous delegations made statements on protection of gender equality, welcoming the Equality Act 2010 but imploring further action on closing the gender pay gap. The UK’s anti-terrorism measures were also predictably an area of concern, with questions on the proportionate use of stop and search measures and support for the reduction in pre-charge detention for suspected terrorists from 28 to 14 days. Free expression also featured heavily: numerous countries, including the USA, Japan and Iraq, welcomed the government’s plans for reform and others pressed the government on the timetable for passing reform into statute

The recommendations section covers many of the key areas of controversy over rights in the UK. For example,  Austria voiced concern over the use of “secret evidence”; and many delegations called for work on the detention and prosecution of suspected terrorists, including renditions, the detention of migrants, and on improving access to legal advice for those that are detained.

Some recommendations raise specific, practical points such as Hungary’s request to improve the response rate to communications from the Human Rights Council. There were also calls to ratify numerous international treaties, and yet more to improve protection of the rights of children, and to prevent human trafficking.

However, some points were raised that many would consider only tangentially linked with human rights. Germany asked for recognition of the human right to safe drinking; a number of recommendations relate to the Leveson Inquiry and phone hacking; and there were calls for economic, social and cultural rights to be guaranteed. These are of course important issues, but in raising these concerns in the UPR, there is a danger that such distinction as it is possible to make between human rights, global justice, ethics and social policy is blurred in the report. Some of the recommendations seem to be so broad as to carry little meaning.

The response

The UPR has been welcomed by the UK’s human rights bodies. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which published its own review of UK human rights in March 2012, stated that the UPR – or the UK’s ‘human rights exam’ – supports the EHRC’s findings, and that there remains room for improvement in protecting human rights.

In its approach to the UPR, the government seems to have used the more constructive engagement with human rights bodies that preceded the Brighton conference. The justice minister, Lord McNally, gave a speech to the UPR session preceding the report and the  Ministry of Justice submitted a report to the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner. In large part, it was a defence of many aspects of government and public policy, including on Abu Qatada’s deportation and use of “kettling” by the police.

However, there is none of the more emphatic rhetoric on human rights seen at times in recent years. The Commission on a Bill of Rights is described as “an opportunity to review how best to enshrine the Convention into Domestic law, protecting and extending British liberties”. This is not the radical reform that some members of the government may want to see and Lord McNally’s tone doesn’t exactly chime with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the recent European Court of Human Rights prisoner votes judgment that such decisions should not be made by “a foreign court”.

The varied nature of the recommendations and statements may be both the UPR’s selling point and its potential weakness. It must surely be difficult to argue that any process that involves delegations from countries whose governments do not have the best record on protecting human rights is not important. Giving voice to the people in those countries that value the importance of human rights is of course welcome, and the UPR provides a unique mechanism to do this on a global level. The Secretary General describes the UPR as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world”.

However, the result is so broad-based that the message may be diluted. With so many areas covered, some that are not readily susceptible to enforcement by legal or policy means, it will surely be difficult for the government to act on each recommendation.

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  1. For those who urge the UK to sign up to more treaties: I wish the UK government would even remember to which treaties it has signed up in the first place. They tend to forget that in the case of the ECtHR for example:

  2. Stephanie says:

    I am shocked to read that you consider the call to implement economic, social and cultural rights as tangential. The UK has ratified the ICESCR already in 1976 and this is half the menu of the International Bill of Rights. The rights protected in this treaty are even of particular importance in times of austerity. This country just seems to lack ambition when it accepts that its young people have to sleep in the cold under the London Bridge in order to be allowed to do unpaid work for the Jubilee celebrations.

    1. Rachit Buch says:

      Thanks for the comment – you may be absolutely right. My personal view is that ESC rights have a huge role to play, even if only as one instrument in the pursuit of general improvement in well being (and prevention of the sort of situation for the Jubilee ‘volunteers’).

      However, I did say that “many may consider…” them to be tangential. While my personal view may be different, we have to acknowledge that many people see these areas to be in the realm of social policy, and not to be considered as fundamental human rights. It’s a wider argument to shift the general public’s views on this!

    2. Indeed. It’s not just unemployed people who are viciously attacked by sadistic welfare rules and polices, but disabled people too. They are routinely impoverished, bullied, assessed and humiliated by bullying state agents to the point that many disabled people are killing themselves.

      The shame of the human rights-abusing UK is up for all to see:

      I consider this a human rights emergency. The BBC won’t report it because they are State TV. The rest of the media won’t report it because they are controlled by rich media barons who despise welfare.

    3. I am one of these who think that the social and economic rights are not at the same level as human and civil rights.
      To stay with your example, the young people didn’t “have to” sleep in the cold under London Bridge. They could have said “no”. It might be that nothing would have happened to them. If something adverse had happened to them, then it would be a violation of their human right not to be forced to undertake certain kind of unpaid labour.

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